She has, quite possibly, the most famous face in the entire world. Just as beguiling as Mona Lisa’s smile, however, is her long and captivating history. Particularly notable is the two-year period when one of the world’s most valuable paintings . . . just disappeared. R.A. Scotti explores this fascinating incident in Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa, an engaging nonfiction study that’s as full of twists, turns and suspense as any mystery novel.
Anyone who’s seen the painting behind bulletproof glass in its high-security room at the Louvre would be surprised at how lax the Paris museum’s security was in August 1911, when the painting seemed to simply vanish into thin air. When the theft was uncovered, however, virtually all of Paris was paralyzed; the museum shut down for a week so that police could mount a full investigation, and every newspaper was full of speculation on the painting’s whereabouts. Everyone was under suspicion, from the museum’s staff to the young upstart painter Pablo Picasso and his anti-establishment circle of friends.
Despite the sensational nature of the crime, Scotti’s exploration of the theft of the painting would be fairly humdrum if it merely recounted events—especially since the details of the thief’s means and motives are still not fully understood today. Scotti skillfully heightens the suspense by frequently personifying the painting, almost as if it were a real kidnap victim or runaway: “Mona Lisa had been spotted crossing the border . . . and slinking out of France.”
This approach will delight mystery lovers; of more interest to art history buffs, however, is the way Scotti positions the painting’s disappearance at the crossroads of tradition and modernity. The Parisian police force uses cutting-edge forensic science to find clues; the public’s fascination with the missing lady (even paying to stare at the empty hooks where she once hung) foreshadows the irreverence and self-commentary of modern art; the reproduction of the lady on countless souvenirs previews later 20th-century mass production of cultural artifacts. Placed in these contexts, the theft of the world’s most beloved painting makes the Mona Lisa’s story even more significant—and her smile even more alluring.
Norah Piehl is a writer and editor who lives near Boston.